Cecil Armstrong Gibbs (August 10, 1889 –May 12, 1960) was a prolific and versatile English composer, best known for his output of songs who also devoted much of his career to the amateur choral and festival movements in Britain and attained a high level of popularity, as seen in the fact that his work ‘Dusk’ was requested by Princess Elizabeth (the future queen of England) on her eighteenth birthday. Gibbs was born in Great Baddow, a country village near Chelmsford in Essex, England on August 101889. His maternal grandfather, a Unitarian minister who wrote a number of songs in spite of being musically untrained, was his closest musical relation. His father, David Cecil Gibbs, was the head of the well-known soap company D & W Gibbs, founded by C. A. Gibbs’s grandfather. Gibbs’s mother, Ida, died when Gibbs was only two, having given birth to a still-born son. Gibbs had many privileges in his childhood owing to his father’s wealth, and was raised by a nurse and five maiden aunts in three month rotations.
Gibbs’s musical talent appeared early in life: an aunt discovered that he had perfect pitch at age three. He was also improvising melodies at the piano before he could speak fluently and he wrote his first song at the age of five. While family members insisted that Gibbs should attend some kind of music school abroad, Gibbs’s father was insistent that Gibbs have a proper British education to prepare him for running the family business. Therefore, Gibbs attended the Wick School, a preparatory school in Brighton beginning in 1899. Gibbs’s facility as a student, specifically his talents in Latin, won him a scholarship to Winchester College in 1902 where he specialized in history. However, while at Winchester, Gibbs began music studies in earnest, taking lessons in harmony and counterpoint with Dr. E. T. Sweeting. From 1908-1911 he attended Trinity College, Cambridge on a scholarship as a history student. He continued his studies at Cambridge in music through 1913 studying composition with Edward Dent, Cyril Rootham, and Charles Wood. It was at Cambridge that he also studied organ and piano; however, it became apparent that his future did not lie in musical performance.
After earning his Mus. B. from Cambridge in 1913, Gibbs became a preparatory school teacher. He taught at the Copthorne School in Sussex for a year, then at the Wick School (his alma mater) beginning in 1915. During World War I, he continued to teach at the Wick since he was considered unfit for military service. At the Wick, Gibbs taught English, history and the classics, and also led a choir which became “very keen and competent.” In 1918, he married Miss Honor Mary Mitchell and had his first child, a son, in the following year. Early in his adulthood, Gibbs found little time to compose because of teaching duties, and publishers had rejected the few songs he had found time to write. Gibbs was considering becoming a partner with the Wick School. However, Gibbs was awarded a commission in 1919 to write a musical for the school on the occasion of the Headmaster’s retirement. Two significant incidents that altered his career came from this project. The first was the formation of his friendship with poet Walter de la Mare, who accepted Gibbs’s offer to write the text for the play. The second was that the conductor of this production was none other than Adrian Boult who convinced Gibbs to take a leave of absence from teaching and study music at the Royal College of Music for one year. At the Royal College, Gibbs studied with Ralph Vaughan Williams, Charles Wood, and Boult himself. With the help of the Director, Sir Hugh Allen, he managed to have some of his songs published thus initiating his musical career.
In the early 1920s, Gibbs and his family returned to Danbury, Essex, just a few miles from where Gibbs spent his childhood. Here, Vaughan Williams was their neighbor for a short time. Later, Gibbs had a house built in Danbury, named Crossings, where he lived until World War II. Also in the early 1920s, Gibbs received two significant commissions for stage music, won the Arthur Sullivan Prize for composition, and was regularly getting his music published and performed. In 1921, he was invited to join the staff of the Royal College of Music where he taught theory and composition until 1939. In 1921, Gibbs also founded the Danbury Choral Society, an amateur choir that he conducted until just before his death. In 1923, Gibbs was asked to adjudicate at a competitive musical festival in Bath and quickly found that he had a penchant for this type of work. Within a few years he became one of the best-known judges in England. From 1937 to 1952, he was the Vice-chairman of the British Federation of Musical Festivals, a job that he regarded as one of his most important. In 1931, Gibbs was awarded the Doctorate in Music at Cambridge for composition.
During World War II, Crossings, his home, was commandeered for use as a military hospital, so Gibbs and Honor moved to Windermere in the Lake District. Although the competitive festivals came to a temporary halt during the war, he continued to be highly involved in musical performance; Gibbs formed a thirty-two voice male choir and co-led a county music committee that focused on producing evening concerts. His son was killed on active service in November 1943 in Italy during World War II. After the war, Gibbs and Honor returned to Essex to a small cottage near Crossings called “The Cottage in the Bush.” The competitive festivals resumed. After his retirement from his position as Vice-chairman in 1952, Gibbs continued to write music with more focus on large-scale works including a cantata and a choral mime. While these late compositions were still receiving praise from audiences and participants, they were not nearly as successful as his smaller works. Honor died in 1958, and Gibbs died of pneumonia in Chelmsford on May 12, 1960.
While Gibbs exhibited musical talent early in his life, he came to composition as a relative latecomer, not officially starting a career until his thirties. Gibbs is best known for his output of songs; he also wrote a considerable amount of music for the amateur choirs that he conducted. Gibbs was writing in an era in which European masters such as Mahler, Elgar and Puccini were still writing in a traditional style, but younger composers were searching for a new idiom that lay outside tonality. Gibbs himself had little regard for the aural effect of serialism and atonality although he made an effort to hear new works. Generally, he accepted tradition and did not seek to break new ground. Gibbs’s reputation as a songwriter largely lies in his natural gift for text setting. He insisted on giving priority to the words over the music and had very clear musical ideas on what a song should be. Gibbs set poems by over fifty different poets, but his best works feature poems by Walter de la Mare. Gibbs wrote his best songs early in his career between 1917 and 1933. Later in his career, his inspiration came intermittently though his zest for composing continued even to the end of his life.
Gibbs also wrote stage music, three symphonies, sacred works, and chamber music. The second symphony is the hour-long choral symphony, “Odysseus”, which is perhaps his greatest work. In addition, Gibbs wrote quite a number of settings for choir, mostly for schools and the amateur ensembles he worked with though they were not strong enough works to earn a place in the repertoire. Gibbs was also a fluent writer for strings, in particular the string quartet, writing more than a dozen; many of his early songs have string accompaniments, and his slow waltz “Dusk” for orchestra and piano became extremely popular and earned him more royalties than any of his other works combined.
My collection includes the following work by Cecil Armstrong Gibbs:
Miniature Dance Suite.